Friday, November 30, 2007

Living by Candle Light

Some years ago I made a trip from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh to Patna– an episode I will long remember. The journey we were told would take about five hours we were told but since it was raining we left afternoon giving the trip a little more time than we were told was needed. We crossed the Ganga at Ballia and crossed into Buxar where we entered Bihar. Between the winter sunset and the cloudy sky, it soon turned dark and scary. We wound our way through several trails and village roads as our driver soon realizing that the trip would take more than five or six years began looking for shot cuts.

With not a trace of electricity in any of the villages, the only lights apart from the car headlights were sinister flashes of lightening illuminating a few meters ahead in grotesque flashes and the occasional flickering candle light from a village hut. As the car sped forward, gaggles of women would scatter as the car lights focused on them as they sat for their ablutions by the road side. With a pitch dark sky, a thousand stars but no moon and the brilliant flashes of lightening lighting up what appeared to be abandoned buildings but were simply huts with no electricity or candles. Altogether, the whole scenario looked like a lift out of a set from a Dracula movie with total darkness all around and shadowy figures appearing and disappearing at irregular intervals.

But perhaps the sets from the Dracula movies will become more common and we will learn to live by candle light as most of our ancestors had done. For the facts are clear. India's peak power deficit touched a 10-year high of 14.6 percent between April and October, due to an exceptional spurt in demand and worse-than-expected capacity addition. India's government has further scaled down its expected power capacity addition in the current year to 12,000 megawatts from 17,000 megawatts. Further poor as well as slow planning and decision making processes ensure that even if projects are passed rapidly, it will still be years before the plants begin production. Meanwhile 412 million people live with no electricity and those who do have suffer long power cuts. Power thefts as well as transmission and distribution losses continue unabated all over the country.

Besides there is political opposition to whatever mode of electricity you try to generate. The opposition to the Indo- US nuclear deal has become common knowledge but what has become hidden in the fine print is the fact that most of India’s nuclear power plants are operating at levels of peak capacity due to a chronic shortage of uranium pending the finalization of the deal. So on one hand we are increasing demand and not adding commensurate capacity and on the other hand, the existing capacity is lying underutilized. Opponents of the nuclear power are also those who fear Chernobyl style disasters or slow effects of leaking radio activity leading to environmental and public health impacts among other things.

Similarly thermal power plants have their detractors. Down to Earth, the leading environment magazine lists that coal based thermal power plants in particular are high in air pollution, water consumption waste and carbon dioxide emission and others are not far behind. So it does not advocate the functioning any more of thermal power plants. Next on the list of are hydel power plants of which India is a huge reservoir, but wait a minute –while Hydel power plants are the least polluting of them all but seem to cause the largest amount of human displacement and suffering. The agitations surrounding the environmental and human displacement caused by the Narmada and the Tehri Dam have carried on for years and there have been others like the project in Kerala adjacent to the Silent Valley that have never taken off. In India where all kinds of lobbies are active and vocal and their paths often cross, we have never been able to determine the balance between addressing human and environmental concerns with the concerns of economic advancement without balancing one apple cart or the other. And even as we learn to do that, we might also learn in the meanwhile to live by candle light as they do in the villages of Bihar.

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